Wide Hollow Elementary School in West Valley has a new name and focus.

It is now Wide Hollow STEAM — a school focused on incorporating science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics into core lessons.

Concepts like computer coding are not new to the school, with Lego coding programs in use three years ago. But now the STEAM opportunities for students have expanded.

The school transformed its computer lab into a STEAM lab. The spacious lab features an assortment of art supplies, age appropriate robots to code commands into, five collaborative audiovisual microscope stations that project visuals onto large monitors, a 3D printer, podcasting stations, a video production station and a die-cutting station.

Students also have programs like Makey Makey, an invention kit that allows a user to connect everyday things to computer programs, allowing possibilities like making stairs act like piano keys.

The lab was funded in part by a $10,000 grant from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said Rick Ferguson, the principal of Wide Hollow. The goal is to connect these tools and tasks to state standards for students.

Statewide emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math lessons has ramped up in recent years in response to a skills gap in Washington between graduates and market demands. As a result, STEM degree and certificate completions in the state have increased in recent years, according to OSPI. But a quickly growing workforce demand is still outpacing that supply.

Ferguson said the lab was developed in response to this changing landscape to engage and prepare students from a younger age. But incorporating art and creativity into the process was key.

“For kids in general, you’ve got kids that are right brained and left brained,” said Ferguson, referring to creatively or artistically inclined students, versus analytically inclined students. “If you’re not reaching those kids that are right brained that are more artistic, then you’re only getting a certain portion of your kids.”

The lab is available to classrooms six periods throughout each day. Teachers are beginning to sign up for slots, and some classes are even working together across grades, with older students helping younger kids learn STEAM concepts, said Ferguson. That helps teachers with less proficiency in the topics gain confidence through teacher collaboration.

The lab in action

On the morning of Sept. 11, Emily Sutliff’s kindergarten students filed into the lab to explore STEAM concepts. They broke into four teams to work together to visually retell the story “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”

The picture book flips from one animal to another: from a brown bear to a red bird, and finally a goldfish. On a laminated chart, students created a path to connect a brown bear on one end of the chart to a goldfish on the other end, following the book’s order. They took pictures of each animal and set them in a square adjacent to the animal prior until all nine animals in the story were accounted for.

Then they took cutout arrows to replicate the path. Then, with a Bee Bot, or a robot with arrow buttons on its surface to code where it should move, the students input the same arrow directions, testing whether the bot would start on the brown bear’s square and meander across the chart until it ended on the goldfish’s square.

“He did it!” 5-year-old Dylan Bucio Valencia exclaimed, after several trials and errors.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes!” his teammate Victoria Betancourt exclaimed.

At another table, students had already finished their task and were trying new commands for their Bee Bot.

“We coded it,” said Jackson Saucier, a 5-year-old who learned to code in the lab last week. “You press the arrows (to indicate) what direction you want the Bee Bot to go.”

If the robot doesn’t respond how the user intended, he explained, the coding was wrong and the bot needed to be “debugged,” or reset before a new code was input.

“I like playing with Bee Bots. It’s my favorite,” teammate Kennedy Van Tighem said, as the bot cruised across the table. Coding, she said, was “kind of fun.”

Blending lessons

In some Wide Hollow classrooms, teachers use blended learning, incorporating STEAM concepts into core course topics.

While reading, young students can also be counting or learning colors, for example, Sutliff said.

“It doesn’t have to be daunting. “It doesn’t have to be, ‘oh my gosh, I have to find time to incorporate more technology,’” she said. Already, her students have begun learning to code robots to move, and they see the process as a fun activity. “It’s fun, they’re engaged and they get to have these next 21st century skills at a young age.”

By getting them comfortable with technology and scientific processes like analysis and collaboration, she said her classroom is giving young students the foundation to be successful across a variety of topics.

Sutliff learned some of these blended learning skills as a fellow at Educational Service District 105, an agency that provides support to regional school districts.

Computational thinking

Larry Davison, ESD 105’s teaching and learning coordinator, said the training he provides is focused on K-5 education. It aims to help kids view themselves as capable product generators, rather than just consumers.

The training, launched last year, guides teachers through abstraction, pattern identification, algorithms and decomposition — the four pillars of computational thinking.

Something as simple as the steps classrooms take to prepare to leave the room, by putting away supplies, picking up coats and backpacks and getting in line, are examples of algorithms.

Even without a command of coding or certain devices, teachers can pass along these ways of thinking about problems, Davison said.

The training is geared toward younger grades to help reduce equity divides between boys and girls, for example, who by high school might think that jobs are not intended for them because they are in male-dominant industries, he said.

While West Valley teachers have been a large majority of the training participants so far, he said, schools throughout the county including those in the Lower Valley have expressed interest going into this school year.

What’s next

Moving forward, Ferguson said he hopes to see more Wide Hollow classrooms follow a blended learning teaching model.

He also hopes to have students programming drones while still in elementary school and running a student greenhouse, using technology tools like student-programmed timed watering devices. The STEAM school is forming relationships with local companies in related industries, and he hopes to lead field trips to companies the students might one day choose to work for.

“It’s where our students are going. Our main emphasis really is this is a way for students to … communicate, collaborate, solve complex problems … and then be creative,” Ferguson said.

“Those are skills that are needed in any job, because we really don’t know,” he added. “A lot of the jobs these kids are going into don’t exist currently. But those four things, the four C’s, they’re going to need those skills.”

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka